Court of Appeal:
Alleged Assault of Fired Employee Does Not Come Under Workers’ Compensation
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An employee who had just been fired and was set upon by three of his former co-workers, acting at the direction of the company’s president, because he was carrying off an office laptop, is not barred by the exclusive-remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act from suing the alleged assailants for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the Court of Appeal for this district has held.
Div. Eight on Thursday reversed a judgment of dismissal as to those causes of action. The judgment resulted from a ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lia R. Martin sustaining demurrers without leave to amend.
However, the appeals court, in an unpublished opinion by Presiding Justice Maria E. Stratton, affirmed the judgment with respect to a cause of action for invasion of privacy. The plaintiff, Iman Sadeghi, had signed an employment contract that specified he had “no expectation of privacy with respect to the Company’s telecommunications, networking or information processing systems...and that “any of those systems may be monitored or reviewed at any time without notice.”
Return of Laptop
Sadeghi maintained that he had agreed, in a conversation with the company president, Hao Li, on the day he was fired, to return the laptop by the end of that day after removing personal communications that were on it but that the device was retrieved by the three alleged assailants—Yen-Chun Chen, Liwen Hu, and Han-Wei Kung—before he had done so.
According to allegations in his second amended complaint (“SAC”), a confrontation began after the plaintiff had exited the office of the employer, Pinscreen, Inc., taken the elevator to the ground floor, and was in the building’s lobby. Outside the building, it was pled, the defendants “intentionally touched and grabbed Sadeghi and his backpack,” and “forcefully restrained him, physically attacked him, and violently shoved him to the ground.”
Sadeghi, a computer engineer who previously worked on animation for Disney studios, had been Pinscreen’s vice president of engineering. According to allegations not relevant to the appeal, his firing stemmed from disclosures by him of improper conduct by the employer, including a cheating of investors.
Stratton pointed to the exclusive-remedy provision in Labor Code §3600. It provides that “liability” for workers’ compensation benefits “in lieu of any other liability whatsoever” to an employee, “shall, without regard to negligence, exist against an employer for any injury sustained by his or her employees arising out of and in the course of the employment” subject to specified exceptions.
Although the appeal was not brought in connection with liability asserted against the employer, Stratton noted that “to prevent employees from circumventing the exclusivity rule by bringing lawsuits for work-related injuries against coemployees, who in turn would seek indemnity from their employers, the Legislature also provides immunity to coemployees acting within the scope of their employment.”
That immunity is contained in §3601(a).
Action for Battery
Addressing the cause of action for battery, the presiding justice wrote:
“We find that while the SAC alleged Sadeghi’s injury arose out of the employment in that the injury was linked in some causal fashion to employment…i.e., the injury would not have happened if Sadeghi was not a Pinscreen employee who had just been terminated—we find the SAC adequately alleged Sadeghi’s injury did not occur in the course of the employment. Sadeghi was restrained and forced to the ground after having been given written notice of termination of employment and after he left with the work laptop from Pinscreen’s office….”
Stratton cited the Fifth District Court of Appeal’s 2016 opinion in Lee v. West Kern Water District.
That opinion says that the “requirement that the employee be acting in the course of employment” for the exclusive remedy rule to apply “generally means the injury happened at a time when the employee was working and in the place of employment.”
The injury in issue, she declared, “did not occur in the course of Sadeghi’s employment.”
Sadeghi’s cause of action for emotional distress cannot be resuscitated where the allegations are predicated on an invasion of privacy, given that the demurrer was properly sustained as to the cause of action alleging that tort, Stratton said. But her opinion decrees that it must be restored to the extent that it is based on the alleged battery.
The jurist said that Sadeghi was not simply fired—which, alone, would not give rise to a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress—but, according to the allegations, “was also physically attacked and injured while leaving the building.” She set forth:
“Respondents were not acting within the scope of their employment when they ‘restrained,’ ‘grabbed,’ and ‘physically attacked’ Sadeghi….[R]espondents’ conduct thus exceeded the normal risks of the employment relationship. The SAC adequately alleged that respondents’ willful and unprovoked physical act of aggression caused Sadeghi’s emotional injuries as well as his physical injuries. The conduct inflicting emotional distress similarly lies outside the purview of the…exclusivity provision.”
Arguing for reinstatement of the cause of action for invasion of privacy, Sadeghi postulated that aside from any peering at the content on the laptop, there was a privacy-breach occasioned by the opening of his backpack in which the laptop was being carried. Stratton rejected the contention, saying that under that view, “an employee could evade Pinscreen’s right to inspect or review the work laptop simply by placing it inside his backpack.”
Martin’s main basis for sustaining demurrers to Sadeghi’s second amended complaint was that allegations in it contradicted those in the earlier pleadings. She invoked the sham-pleading doctrine.
Stratton disapproved that basis, saying:
“Honest complainants are not precluded from correcting erroneous allegations or preventing the correction of ambiguous facts.”
The case is Sadeghi v. Chen, B312596.
Sadeghi was represented by Adam P. Zaffos and Brandon C. Fernald of the Encino law firm of Fernald Law Group. Acting for the defendants were Beverly Hills lawyer Benjamin Davidson, Hermosa Beach practitioner Benjamin Davidson, and Charles Griffith Towle of San Francisco’s Bartko Zankel Bunzel & Miller.
The action against the employer remains pending in the Superior Court. Stratton advised in a footnote that issues relating to that action are presently before her court.
Argument took place Jan. 26 and the matter is under submission.
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